Councils should face down rows over low-traffic neighbourhoods by reframing the debate in terms of livable streets that children can use safely, the head of England’s walking and cycling watchdog has argued as it unveiled its first raft of projects.
Chris Boardman, the former Olympic cyclist who heads Active Travel England (ATE), has promised his organisation will help local authorities navigate culture wars and media controversies over traffic schemes, along with carrying out its core role of ensuring good design.
The organisation has unveiled 133 walking and cycling projects, covering 46 local authorities in England, all outside London. They are intended to provide almost 200 miles of cycle lanes and pavements within 12 months, and modelling shows they will generate a combined 16m extra walking and cycling trips a year.
Boardman, who formerly worked to boost walking and cycling across Greater Manchester, said that while he understood some people were “scared” about change, councils should not get bogged down in debates over low-traffic neighbourhoods, which use filters to limit car through-traffic on smaller streets.
“We can call them whatever we want, but it’s a neighbourhood,” he said. “We want to give people back what they’ve had taken away. We want people to feel OK letting their kids walk to school. If you ask people if they’d like their kids to be able to walk to school, a huge percentage say yes. We’ve been asking the wrong questions.”
The core job of ATE, announced in 2020 and still recruiting staff, is to help councils with proper designs for walking and cycling schemes, with funding held back until they are up to scratch.
Boardman said the organisation’s consultants had been “injecting a lot of quality” into the projects now announced. “It is an inspectorate, but the main thing we can do is help. If an authority hasn’t even got an outline design, we can help them with one – even do it for them.
“Anyone who has got the courage but hasn’t got the resources, we can instantly add value. If a council says ‘we haven’t got room for a scheme’, we’ve got the country’s leading experts who can say ‘you could do it this way’. We’re coming with bags of solutions.”
ATE also offers local authorities what Boardman calls “a cultural hand-holding exercise”, with councillors encouraged to frame more walking and cycling as a positive, rather than just focus on potentially negative coverage.
“I want local councillors to feel good about doing harder stuff, standing up for something,” Boardman said. “There’s a fear of change, and a lot of that is about the messaging. But what this is about, ultimately, is making nicer places to live. Everyone has lost sight of that and just thinks something is being taken away. But we’re giving something back.
“Also, the question that isn’t asked is: if you don’t do this then what happens when the roads are full up? We’ve got an extra 20bn miles being driven around homes just the last 10 years. If we don’t do these things you think are difficult, what’s your suggestion? When you do ask this, it stops people in their tracks.”
ATE’s ambitious remit is for 50% of all journeys in English towns and cities to be cycled or walked by 2030, with Boardman tying this to parallel government targets to reduce emissions.
“If you want to address climate change, and you’ve got eight years to do it, then buses, bikes and walking are the only tools you’ve practically got to make that happen,” he said. “That’s it. And buses don’t work unless you make space for them.”